Does the life of a Jewish woman who was born, lived and died in the same house in Goldsboro have lessons for today’s historians?
The answer is, yes, lots of lessons, which is certainly one of the reasons that the newly published UNC Press book, “Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South,” by Leonard Rogoff, won this year’s Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction given by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.
Weil’s father and his brothers immigrated to the United States from German Bavaria a few years before the American Civil War. In Goldsboro, these German Jewish immigrants quickly achieved extraordinary success as merchants, entrepreneurs, and community leaders.
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Born in 1879, Gertrude Weil (pronounced “wheel”) became an unapologetic progressive. But as Rogoff explains, “She wanted change, but orderly change that befitted her modest character and conservative society. She became a woman at ease with herself, so likable with her kindly manner, ready to laugh, and youthful enthusiasms, so admirable with her high intelligence and selfless dedication to her causes.”
In work for good causes in Goldsboro and statewide women’s club organizations, she became convinced that important progressive changes would come about only with women participating in politics as voters. As president of the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina in 1919, she mobilized efforts to have our state ratify the proposed 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. But that effort faced strong headwinds. Rogoff writes, “The prosuffragists, they claimed , deserted homes and children. Antisuffragist women waved hankies and red roses from General Assembly galleries.”
One antisuffrage campaign broadside read, “A Vote for Federal Suffrage Is a Vote for Organized Nagging Forever.”
Weil’s efforts to persuade the state’s General Assembly to adopt the amendment failed. But the mobilization of women for those efforts laid the groundwork for organized women’s participation in politics after the 19th Amendment was adopted by the actions of other states.
For the rest of her life she used her connections with the League of Women Voters and other organizations to address problems of health, education, hunger, labor fairness and racial justice.
All the while she was fighting these battles, she was also back in Goldsboro tending to her family, religious and local community responsibilities.
Miss Gertrude never married. She was a good friend and political ally of University of North Carolina President and U.S. Sen. Frank Porter Graham. She said the only men she would consider marrying were Graham and her own brother Leslie.
All this is important. But in the hands of Rogoff, the master historian of the Jewish experience in North Carolina and author of the classic, “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina,” the story becomes much more. Miss Gertrude’s story becomes a new and important window into the history of North Carolina and of the nation during the middle years of the 20th Century. The book helps us see differently and more clearly the complex and sometimes contradictory challenges faced by North Carolina progressives like Miss Gertrude, her friends Frank Porter Graham and Terry Sanford, and their political hero, Weil’s Goldsboro neighbor, Charles B. Aycock.
At a time with they were both identified as liberals on the question of racial justice, Graham and Weil served on the commission to establish a memorial to Gov. Aycock at his birthplace in nearby Fremont. Although today’s “revisionist” historians, as Rogoff explains, identify him as an advocate of black disfranchisement, Aycock was something different to Weil and Graham. Graham lauded Aycock for protecting funding for black schools and his intent to franchise literate blacks and disfranchise illiterate whites after 1908.
So this book is not only a tribute to an extraordinary woman, it is a much needed light on a period of our history that historians still struggle to understand.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.